Health & Fitness

This gym isn’t just pumping iron, it’s healing hearts

Mika Belgrave, 36, a cancer patient, credits the six-week fitness program with helping with her recovery. Belgrave works out at Aim Higher Crossfit, a gym outside of Coral Gables that offers six-week fitness challenges to help people both physically and emotionally.
Mika Belgrave, 36, a cancer patient, credits the six-week fitness program with helping with her recovery. Belgrave works out at Aim Higher Crossfit, a gym outside of Coral Gables that offers six-week fitness challenges to help people both physically and emotionally. cjuste@miamiherald.com

At one gym, working out isn’t just about rock-solid abs and firm glutes.

The daily routine of pumping iron and enduring an hour of high-intensity interval training comes with more perks than that, says Mika Belgrave, a cancer patient who doctors say will have up to five years to live.

“This place offered me a family, happiness, something I wasn’t really finding elsewhere,” Belgrave said. “After my cancer diagnosis and recurrence, I needed to find a reason to keep going.”

Aim Higher Crossfit, a small gym on the outskirts of Coral Gables, launched a six-week “New You” challenge this summer. The challenge, aimed at bringing transformation in just a month and a half, didn’t just attract people wanting to shed some weight, something that left trainers baffled.

Members like Belgrave started trickling in, some seeking refuge from nasty divorces, while others were on a quest to find confidence or overcome heartbreak and disease.

“During my time in chemo, I gained 12 pounds. During that time, I was so upset because, you know, you can’t plan anything. I’m going to die no matter what,” said Belgrave, 36. “When I saw the ad for the challenge, I signed up. At the end, I didn’t expect how much they would do for me. They know me by name, not as a cancer patient.”

Tears streamed down her cheek. Gaining her composure, she did a handstand. “It wasn’t about the weight anymore but about being happy. I gained the energy to be stronger and better.”

Thiago D’Oliveira, co-owner and head coach of the gym, said he has found great reward in helping people reach not only their physical goals, but their emotional ones.

"The variety of people coming to us from all walks of life, wanting to tap into something greater, is amazing,” D’Oliveira said. “We were surprised to see so many people interested in finding a ‘new them.’ We have come across people a little bit older, students, teens and people going through crises and life struggles. At the end, though, we found that they were all looking for one solution — enhancing and bettering themselves.”

Daniel Jimenez, a clinical psychologist at the University of Miami, is studying the effects of exercise on mental well-being in an ongoing clinical trial. The assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at UM’s Miller School of Medicine says exercise is an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression or anxiety.

“Research has shown us that when someone is overcoming some sort of loss or they’re dealing with a loss, with heartbreak, when somebody is having those feelings, exercise can be a very effective tool to make them feel better,” Jimenez said.

“Based on the reports that I’ve gotten from participants in this study, many have stated that it has helped them with everything in their lives. Not to say it’s a cure-all, but they’ve noticed improvements in their sleep, mood, in their self-confidence, and now they feel like they are actually achieving something.”

When he sees his patients combating depression, Jimenez turns the conversation to exercise.

“I always ask, ‘How physically active are you?’ Nine times out of 10, they respond, ‘I don’t do anything.’ So my response to that is, ‘Let’s get you exercising.’ 

For 34-year-old Danny Diaz, Jimenez’s statements have proven true. As a gay man and victim of severe anxiety, his history of being bullied as a kid because of his weight hindered him into his adult life.

“Exercise has served as that ego boost and confidence booster,” said Diaz, a marketing executive with the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce. “Apart from losing about 30 pounds, the effects have gone way beyond smaller clothes sizes. Before, I never cared how I looked; I never cared about myself. Now I take joy in waking up and figuring out what to wear. I put more thought into my appearance. And you know, I think that confidence translates into your work, your life, your family life, into everything. I now care about the whole package, about all of me.”

Jennifer Heisz, an expert on physical activity and mental health and an assistant professor in the department of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, is researching ways to promote brain health through physical exercise.

She says her lab’s research has shown that a program of regular physical activity reduces the risk of dementia. Her research also has demonstrated that exercise promotes plasticity in the brain — opening up new pathways — to enhance cognitive abilities and reduce depressive symptoms.

“One way that exercise promotes good mental health is by regulating the stress system. Exercise tones the stress system and increases resiliency to psychological stressors, whether they are exams, problems at work or financial challenges,” Heisz said. “The benefits can be achieved with just 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, like brisk walking, three times a week. This may sound like a costly time investment during a hectic period when other activities demand your attention. However, prioritizing exercise can increase the quality of the time spent on these demanding activities.

“By revealing new ways to prevent and manage mental illnesses with exercise, our research gives hope and self-control to a group of individual that often struggle to achieve these very fundamental human needs.”

Because of the six-week challenge’s unexpected success, Aim Higher decided that it wouldn’t just be a one-time deal. In addition to the gym’s regular memberships, the gym said that a fresh New You program would begin every few months.

Most recently, the gym launched an exclusive challenge for those over 50. Thomas Bott signed up after his parents passed away.

“I realized I had to do something for myself. When your parents die, you realize that the years you have left are less than the years you’ve already spent,” said Bott, 50.

Although the six-week challenges are vigorous, the programs are designed to be scaled down or scaled up depending on the level of experience the challenger may have. Members, placed in groups of 25, attend a one-hour class three times a week and are given cardio homework to do on three other days. As part of the program, members are encouraged to eat paleo, although they are not required to. The fee for the program is $250.

The next challenge starts on Jan. 9.

“I saw a great opportunity to help people enhance their quality of life. And what I got back, the testimonies I’ve heard, the people I met, is more than I could’ve ever expected,” D’Oliveira said.

For more information call 786-600-3045 or email info@aimhighercrossfit.com.

Monique O. Madan: 305-376-2108, @MoniqueOMadan

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